Sandy shore habitat

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This article describes the habitat of sandy shores. It is one of the sub-categories within the section dealing with biodiversity of marine habitats and ecosystems.


Sandy beach in Middelkerke - Belgium [1]

Sandy beaches are loose deposits of sand, including possibly some gravel or shells, that cover the shoreline in many places. They make up a large portion (about 30%) of the world’s ice-free coastlines[2]. Beaches serve as buffer zones or shock absorbers that protect the coastline, sea cliffs or dunes from direct wave attack. It is an extremely dynamic environment where sand, water and air flow permanently interact. Beaches are also important coastal recreational areas and tourist destinations. Fine-grained sand beaches tend to be gently sloping and quite flat.


Sandy beaches are soft shores formed by deposition of sediment particles that have been carried alongshore and cross-shore by currents and waves. A more comprehensive introduction to the processes underlying beach formation is given in the articles Shoreface profile and Shore protection vegetation. The two main types of beach material are quartz (=silica) sands of terrestrial origin and carbonate sands of marine origin. The carbonate sand is weathered from mollusk shells and skeletons of other animals. Other material includes heavy minerals, basalt (=volcanic origin) and feldspar, see Coastal and marine sediments.


The grain size of sand varies from very fine to very coarse. The particle diameter is shown in the table below. Quartz sands have a slightly lower density ([math]\sim 2.6 \;^{-3}[/math]) than carbonate sands ([math]2.7 - 2.95 \;^{-3}[/math]). The quartz particles are generally more rounded. Calcium carbonate particles sink more slowly in water due to their more irregular shapes, even if their density is higher.

Generic Name Particle Diameter (mm)
Very coarse 1.0 to 2.0
Coarse 0.50 to 2.0
Medium 0.25 to 0.50
Fine 0.125 to 0.25
Very Fine 0.0625 to 0.125

Porosity is the volume of void space in the sand. It is the volume of water needed to saturate a given weight of dry sand. Most well-sorted sands have a porosity of about 30 to 40 % of the total volume. Porosity increases with decreasing grainsize; this is because of capillary or electrochemical bounds between fine particles and water. Effective porosity is that portion of the total void space of a porous material that is capable of transmitting water. The effective porosity increases with increasing grainsize, for grainsizes smaller than 0.5 mm[3]. Graded sediment has a much lower effective porosity than well-sorted sediment, because voids between large grains are filled with small grains. The permeability (as well as the related hydraulic conductivity) is a parameter that relates the flow through a sediment body to the pressure gradient (for groundwater flow, the hydraulic head). Fine sediments have lower permeabilities due to the smaller pore sizes. Penetrability is important to the macrofauna. All species must be able to burrow into the substratum. Penetrability and permeability (or hydraulic conductivity) depend on the effective porosity and grainsize[3], see also Kozeny–Carman equation.

The two basic beach types are dissipative and reflective. Together with the intermediate types, there are six major microtidal beach types. Beach types can also be based on the degree of exposure. This ranges from very sheltered over sheltered and exposed to very exposed.

For further details see: Shoreface profile, Coastal and marine sediments.

Functioning and adaptations

The intertidal beach zone is covered part of the day by water and part of the day it is exposed to air. Tides, waves and swash supply nutrients and food. When the tide retreats, waste products, eggs and larvae are taken away by the backwash. Organisms living on sandy shores have adapted to this dynamic environment.

Burrowing must be rapid and effective on high-energy sandy beaches. This is because the animals must not be swept away by uprushing and downrushing water. In contrast with rocky shores, desiccation is not an overriding concern, because the animals can retreat into the substratum or below the water table. Intertidal filter-feeders cannot feed while the tide has retreated. Many species of the meiofauna use vertical tidal migrations through the sand column. Other species move up and down the beach with the tides. There is a difference between directional stimuli (such as light, slope of the beach, water currents) and nondirectional stimuli (such as disturbance of the sand, changes in temperature, hydrostatic pressure). Directional stimuli act as orientational signs, while nondirectional stimuli act as releasing factors.

The predominant feeding types are filter-feeding and scavenging. Animals on low-energy sandy beaches adapt their respiration differently from those on surf-swept beaches. Some adaptations are an increased ventilation rate, an increased ventilation efficiency, reduced metabolic rate or other ways of energy economy. Many sheltered-shore animals are facultative anaerobes as an adaptation to ebb tides. Other animals in oxygenated surf-swept beaches are essentially aerobic. The majority of the intertidal animals have a high tolerance to variability in their environment, even exceeding what is necessary for survival in their particular habitats. Some species bury themselves to escape high temperatures; others cool by evaporation, by entering the sea or by absorbing water from the substratum. Another problem for intertidal animals is the time of reproduction. There is variation in the number of eggs, the anatomy of the reproductive organs, the morphology of egg shells, times of breeding, mating behavior and developmental stages. Some species adapt by reproducing frequently (iteroparous) or by reproducing just once in a year (semelparous). There are also species that follow the lunar cycle to reproduce at the right time. To avoid predation, several behaviors have developed. The first one is deep burrowing. Another one is migration with the tide to escape predation. Crabs impress predators by holding their chelae open and aloft. According to circumstances, animals can modify their behavior. This is called phenotypic plasticity.

Several groups of vertebrates make use of sandy beaches for foraging, nesting and breeding. Turtles nest on the backshore of sandy beaches. Birds use the beach for foraging, nesting and roosting. Seals use several areas of the beach for nesting, molting, breeding and raising pups. Other terrestrial animals such as otters, baboons, raccoons, lions,… may descend onto the beach to forage. [4]


The distribution and abundance of the sediment infauna is mostly controlled by complex interactions between the physicochemical and biological properties of the sediment. [5]

Physicochemical properties are:

  • Sediment type, grain size, sorting
  • Water content, permeability, penetrability
  • Tide
  • Swash flow (surface and subsurface beach)
  • Oxidation-reduction state
  • Dissolved oxygen
  • Temperature
  • Light
  • Organic content

Biological properties are:

  • Food availability and feeding activity
  • Effects of reproduction on dispersal and settlement
  • Behavior that induces movement and aggregation
  • Intraspecific competition
  • Interspecific competition and competitive exclusion
  • Predation effects

Most invertebrate phyla are represented on sandy beaches, either as interstitial forms or as members of the macrofauna [4]. The macrofaunal forms are by far the better known. Some of them are typical of intertidal beaches and the surf zone, while others are more characteristic of sheltered sandbanks, sandy muds or estuaries and are less common on open beaches of pure sand [4].


Macrofauna of sandy beaches are often abundant and, in some cases, attain exceptionally high densities. The main feature is the high degree of mobility displayed by all species[6]. These animals may vary from a few mm to 20 cm in length. The macrofauna community consists of organisms too large to move between the sand grains. The macrofauna of sandy beaches includes most major invertebrate taxa although it appears that molluscs, crustaceans and polychaetes are the most important. Crustaceans are usually more abundant on tropical sandy beaches or on exposed beaches whereas molluscs are more abundant on less exposed and on temperate beaches. However, there are many exceptions and polychaetes are sometimes more abundant than either of these taxa. Crustaceans generally dominate the sands near the upper tidal beach and molluscs near the lower beach[4]. Physical factors, primarily wave action and sediment grainsize largely determine the distribution and diversity of the invertebrate macrofauna of sandy beaches. Food supply and productivity in the nearshore zone are important for the population abundance.


In contrast to the swash-swept beach surface inhabited by most of the macrofauna, the interstitial system is truly three-dimensional and often extends deep into the sand. The porous system averages about 40% of the total sediment volume. Its inhabitants include small metazoans (multicellular organisms) forming the meiofauna, protozoans, bacteria and diatoms[4]. The meiofauna is defined as those metazoan animals passing undamaged though 0.5 to 1.0 mm sieves and trapped on 30 mm screens. On most beaches the interstitial fauna is rich and diverse, even exceeding in some cases the macrofauna in biomass [4]. The dominant taxa of sandy beach meiofauna are nematodes and harpacticoid copepod, together with other important groups including turbellarians, oligochaetes, gastrotrichs, ostracods and tardigrades. See also Meiofauna of Sandy Beaches for a more detailed description of meiofauna on sandy beaches and the patterns of latitudinal biodiversity.


Terrestrial insects and vertebrates are frequently overlooked in accounts of sandy beaches. These animals are usually a conspicuous component of the ecosystems, often rivalling the aquatic macrofauna in terms of biomass and having a significant impact on the system with regard to predation and scavenging.

Related articles

Meiofauna of Sandy Beaches
Shore protection vegetation
Shoreface profile
Coastal and marine sediments


  2. Luijendijk, A, Hagenaars, G., Ranasinghe, R., Baart, F., Donchyts, G. and Aarninkhof, S. 2018. The State of the World’s Beaches. Nature scientific reports 8: 6641
  3. 3.0 3.1 Urumovic, K. and Urumovic Sr., K. 2014. The effective porosity and grain size relations in permeability functions. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., 11: 6675–6714
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 McLachlan A. and Brown A. 2006. The ecology of sandy shores. Academic press – Elsevier. pp. 373
  5. Knox G.A. 2001. The ecology of seashores. CRC Press. p. 557
  6. Dugan, J.E., Hubbard, D.M. and Quigley, B.J. 2013. Beyond beach width: Steps toward identifying and integrating ecological envelopes with geomorphic features and datums for sandy beach ecosystems. Geomorphology 199: 95–105

The main author of this article is TÖPKE, Katrien
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: TÖPKE, Katrien (2023): Sandy shore habitat. Available from [accessed on 19-05-2024]

The main author of this article is Kotwicki, Lech
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Kotwicki, Lech (2023): Sandy shore habitat. Available from [accessed on 19-05-2024]